Listen. I, too, think Julian Assange is a self-righteous posturing phony, a rapist, an abetter of tyrants, and a witting KGB cutout. He’s a sniveling manchild who only publishes on countries with laws preventing them from pursuing him or without the resources to spike his coffee with polonium. As a private citizen, I would love nothing more than to throw him out the embassy window into the waiting arms of the British constabulary. I hate his stunted, vestigial guts; I hate the gut flora that inhabit them; and if I should be so lucky as to outlive him I fully intend to dance the hopak on his grave. But that’s not what this is about. As usual, this is about liberal democracy.
According to the Washington Post, it is not yet clear what charges DoJ wants to bring. There may be evidence that Wikileaks was involved in more than receipt and publication of classified documents, or they may want to go for him under the Espionage Act of 1917. The relevant clause seems to be this:
Whoever having unauthorized possession of, access to, or control over any document, writing, code book, signal book, sketch, photograph, photographic negative, blueprint, plan, map, model, instrument, appliance, or note relating to the national defense, or information relating to the national defense which information the possessor has reason to believe could be used to the injury of the United States or to the advantage of any foreign nation, willfully communicates, delivers, transmits or causes to be communicated, delivered, or transmitted, or attempts to communicate, deliver, transmit or cause to be communicated, delivered, or transmitted the same to any person not entitled to receive it, or willfully retains the same and fails to deliver it to the officer or employee of the United States entitled to receive it… shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than ten years, or both.
Hitherto the US government, aware of the bad precedent it would set and the SCOTUS smackdown that would likely follow, has not prosecuted anyone under the Espionage Act for publishing leaked material. The Obama administration, otherwise godawful on transparency and press freedom, was at least in this one case well aware of the ancient principle according to which What Is Good For The Goose Is Good For The Gander. Assange’s lawyer, while no doubt an even bigger human trash midden than his client, is right: Wikileaks is a publisher, and journalistic activities are protected even when the journalists in question are unethical dickweasels. Especially when the journalists in question are unethical dickweasels.
A prosecution of Assange is the foot in the door. There is classified information in every national newspaper every day, especially lately. If DoJ succeeds in prosecuting him under the Espionage Act, it will be open season for the White House on all of our national outlets. They’ll send Junior out there with an elephant gun. Marty Baron’s head will end up stuffed on a wall.
There is no law of unintended consequences at work here. From a White House that’s been frothing constantly at the mouth about all non-wiki leaks, the message is quite clear: it stops printing classified material, or it gets the Espionage Act. After a successful Assange prosecution, journalists would be catching hell from all sides. Besides having to worry about ending up in the camps for talking to whistleblowers, those bold enough to carry on regardless would find themselves dealing with editors reluctant to have the FBI in rummaging through the archives and making off with files and computers.
Of course much as it may seem like a contradiction, it was inevitable that the regime would turn on Assange sooner or later. After 8 November, he became a threat, and he is the ideal vector for getting at the press. Now that at long bloody last Assange is widely hated on the center-left, the political fallout from a prosecution under the Espionage Act would unfortunately not be particularly bad. Critics on the left are already more likely to focus on the hypocrisy angle, and on the right, a prosecution of Assange might actually bring surveillance hawks, neocons, and Manning-haters round to il Douche’s side. It might even be popular.